Zell’s got it backward

By Steve Outing

The flamboyant new owner of the Tribune Co., billionaire Sam Zell, visited one of his properties in Virginia, the Daily Press, yesterday, and (according to this report) told employees this:

Tribune’s smaller newspapers, including the Daily Press, would serve as a ‘petri dish’ of innovation, where new ideas would be tested and incubated before being passed along to the company’s big three: the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and Newsday of Long Island, N.Y.”

I have to say, while I think Zell is on the right track with trying to shake things up at Tribune, he’s got this backward. Letting the smaller properties in a chain try the innovations and then passing them along to the flagship papers is something the newspaper industry has already been doing — and I think that’s part of the reason the industry is still in such a mess. It’s not bold eough.

Some of the largest newspapers are bleeding badly; layoffs and buyouts are the order of the day, and quality of the product is deteriorating. (My local paper keeps getting thinner; the day is very near when it’s no longer worth it to renew my subscription.) Zell should be telling his flagship papers to stop stalling and start innovating big-time. Waiting for experiments from the hinterlands to pan out before implementing them in Chicago, LA and Long Island is a going-too-slow approach.

Zell is known for being a change agent. So why doesn’t he demand that every paper in the Tribune chain innovate like there’s no tomorrow? Tomorrow is going to suck if they don’t.

Look, pure-play Internet companies have demonstrated that there are billions of dollars to be made from innovating. I’m sure that Zell believes the newspaper industry can reinvent itself and take part. So why would he take such a conservative approach? How odd.

What do you think?

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!